Welcome to our Game In Progress review of Dishonored 2. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be playing through and reviewing the game as I go, checking in with my thoughts on what I’ve seen since the last entry and how things are evolving as a whole. This is a new, experimental format for us here at Gameological, but it’s one we’re very excited to explore and shape along with you, our beloved community. It will allow us to hold longer conversations about major releases, dive into their details in ways that we couldn’t before, and, perhaps most importantly of all, let you to play along with us and share your insights and experiences. Not all games will receive the Game In Progress treatment, and those that do won’t be precluded from being the subjects of the longform criticism we love to create.
Why do this now? The ways that games are made, released, and promoted by their creators have changed. Bethesda Softworks, Dishonored 2’s publisher, has made it clear that it will no longer be providing the press with copies of its games early enough to write comprehensive reviews on launch day, and while they might be less forthcoming about it, other companies have been and, I believe, will be enacting the same policies. So instead of stubbornly sticking to the same old routine, we see this as an opportunity to try something different, a new method that’s more in line with the way people actually play games and the contemplative pace they deserve.
This first part of our Dishonored 2 review covers the game’s first three missions, ending with The Good Doctor. Part two will be published next Wednesday, November 16, and cover missions four through six. Part three will drop the Wednesday after that and bring us to the end of the game. And if you’re looking for more Dishonored talk, especially insight into how its world came together, check back in tomorrow for an interview with Harvey Smith, the game’s director.
This article discusses specific plot details from Dishonored and the opening scenes of Dishonored 2, though it’s hardly more than has already been revealed in trailers and previews for the game.
In the second episode of HBO’s Westworld, Dr. Robert Ford, the chief architect of the show’s violent Wild West video game come to life, shares his philosophy about what draws players into simulated worlds. “Guests don’t return for the obvious things we do, the garish things,” he says. “They come back because of the subtleties, the details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one had ever noticed before.” It’s a shockingly astute summation of what so many people love about games. Especially when so many of them play off the same themes, aesthetics, and tasks, usually of the murderous variety, it’s the details that give them life and identity, that make them worth obsessing over.
Dishonored was never a game that thrived on the big picture. It was the abundance of those kinds of magical details that made it one of the landmark works of the last several years. By slowing down and observing the rich setting around you, its utilitarian narrative gained new depth, its characters personality and motive, and its world a history and culture that gives purpose to every person you meet and object you see.
In its first hours alone, Dishonored 2 takes that sophisticated world-building and pushes it even further. In the four years between the two games, Arkane Studios has fleshed out the details of its universe, providing cultural, economic, and political histories to the places and people of Dunwall, the oppressive Victorian city players ran roughshod through in the first game, and the nations beyond its borders. While much of that is still hidden away in the easily overlooked nuances of every room you visit and the readable books strewn around them, they’ve seeped further into the game’s surface, making its broader strokes more intriguing and the pursuit of its finer points that much more essential.
The foremost beneficiary is the game’s story. The first Dishonored cast players as Corvo Attano, a brilliant swordsman who was framed for the murder of the empress he was sworn to protect and sets out to clear his name and rescue Emily, their daughter and the rightful heir to the vacant throne. The sequel is set 15 years later. Emily is the ruler of the four islands that make up the Empire Of The Isles, and Corvo serves as her adviser and protector. Trouble has been brewing, though, as several of Emily’s fiercest critics were murdered and their slayings attributed to a criminal dubbed The Crown Killer. Amid this turmoil, the duke of Serkonos, the empire’s southern-most island, pays Emily a visit and presents a woman who claims to be her aunt and the throne’s true heir. Naturally, things turn violent, and you’re forced to choose whether you’d like to spend the rest of the game playing as Emily or Corvo. The character you don’t pick is supernaturally sidelined, and the other must escape Dunwall and travel to Serkonos for some revenge. (I went with Emily, so this review series will reflect her story.)
That premise should sound familiar to anyone who’s played the original. It’s the exact same sequence of events, yet by simply integrating a bit of political intrigue, it’s immediately more engrossing. The Crown Killer plotline is an especially clever wrinkle. For whoever is pulling the strings of this coup and organizing the killings, it’s a means of raising suspicions against Emily and destabilizing her court. For us, it’s a tidy window into her rule and how the Empire’s people have responded to it. She’s in no way a hated leader, but she’s young and inexperienced. At 10 years old, she was given power over four separate nation-states, each with their own governing bodies, cultures, and economies.
She’s spent the last 15 years learning on the job, and everything we see and hear reflects the immensity of that task. You can see it in her chambers, where you’re unceremoniously locked in after things go south. Her desk is a mess of papers, covered in letters from trade unions and foreign dignitaries. You might wander into Emily’s private bathroom on your way out of Dunwall Tower and find an encouraging audio recording left by Corvo. It’s easy to imagine her slipping into a bath after a hard day and finding comfort in his warm words, a momentary escape rivaled only by the hookah she hides in the royal safe room and her father’s late-night assassin lessons.
Arkane’s decision to provide voices and dialogue for the game’s playable characters is a boon as well. Stephen Russell’s Corvo is gruff and disillusioned, but it masks the tender side that’s reserved for his daughter. Erica Luttrell provides Emily with an appropriate youthfulness and dignity in the face of this bloody betrayal. If you quietly attack any hostile guards on your way out of Dunwall, for example, she’ll murmur “traitor” under her breath, her voice sounding more disappointed than bloodthirsty.
Waiting for you in the Dunwall docks is the Dreadful Wale, a rusty vessel whose captain, Meagan Foster (played by Rosario Dawson), has been instructed to take you to Karnaca, the capital of Serkonos, where your first mission is to infiltrate a decrepit science institute and talk to its chief researcher. Before you get there, you’re introduced to Karnaca, a beautiful city that’s every bit as astonishing a creation as Dunwall. Starting the game in the depressing gray gloom of that city makes the sunny skies and colorful Mediterranean architecture of Karnaca that much more of a shocking, welcome departure.
As Dishonored levels go, The Good Doctor starts off as one of the least distinct, serving mostly as a way to get players used to Karnaca’s bloodflies, vicious insects that lay their eggs inside corpses—including those you create—and will sting anything in sight. It evolves into something more interesting by the end, a bit of Jekyll and Hyde-inspired horror inside the ruined hospital. It fits the need for a humdrum opening level to help us would-be assassins get our feet wet, and as a result, it feels like a speed bump after the game’s strong opening and the wonder of emerging into a new place as dense as Karnaca. But our next target is Kirin Jindosh, Serkonos’ brilliant and maniacal chief inventor, and word is he lives in a mechanical mansion. That certainly sounds promising.
- It’s nice to play a game where so many of the major characters are women. There’s Emily and Delilah, her mysterious usurper, but also Meagan Foster, the tough ship captain who rescues you from Dunwall, and Dr. Hypatia, Serkonos’ foremost biologist.
- Although he doesn’t last long, Mortimer Ramsey, the guard who turns on Emily and allows the coup into her court, is a perfect example of Dishonored 2 using those little political and cultural details of its world to create a more interesting character. Why would he do such a thing? Because he’s a stuck-up nobleman who’s tired of taking orders from a “little girl” and her low-class immigrant father, of course.
- Even in the opening Dunwall escape mission, Arkane has packed the environment with loads of optional paths and secrets. My favorite was a scene inside a newspaper office where the editor was shooing away a guard who ordered him to print stories about Emily’s newfound outlaw status.
- Dunwall’s guards still love yelling about how much they need to pee. Some things never change.